Constraints to Smallholder Livelihoods in Irrigated Agriculture in Groundwater-Dependent Parts of Asia
Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland
Groundwater is of paramount importance as resource input to smallholder irrigated agriculture in many parts of Asia today, both for securing subsistence farming as well as part of economic livelihood strategies. It is estimated that 1 billion farmers across India, China, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal are reliant on groundwater for their farming. However, despite and in some places because of effective and widespread technologies for accessing and utilizing groundwater, the farmers often encounter constraints in their further development and benefit optimizing of this resource. As part of devising policies and programs that contribute towards sustainable farming systems, integrated land use planning, effective use of water resources, increased food production, and adaptation to global changes in climate, demography, and economic conditions, it is key to understand the realities of farmer interaction with and impediments for utilizing groundwater in these parts of the world. Data and results are presented from action research carried out in the alluvial sedimentary basins of the Indo-Gangetic and Yellow River systems (Fig. 1) as part of a major training and research capacity building effort for groundwater professionals from these five Asian countries. A subsidiary objective to the capacity building aim was to gain insight into and collect key figures and comparative descriptions of the physical, the agricultural, and the household economic conditions for the poor farmers to engage in groundwater irrigation. Major constraints for groundwater use relate to exhaustion of the resource (Yellow River Basin, the North China Plains and western India) and to lack of reliable or affordable energy sources for the pumping of groundwater (eastern India and Bangladesh). Agricultural production levels are relatively low in a global context, particularly in the poorest areas, reflecting other constraints, such as lack of other production inputs and supporting market and service infrastructure. Nowhere is groundwater managed actively and directly, though few examples of local and social schemes for management were encountered. Adaptation or coping strategies of the farmers varied from drilling deeper wells and implementing more efficient pumps in over-exploited areas to substituting expensive diesel fuels with the subsidized cooking oil kerosene in areas with plenty of groundwater but poor energy sources (Table 1). In most places, farmers respond by diversifying crops and livelihood income sources. Migration is also practiced but not always to the effect of relieving further stress on groundwater. General recommendations are provided for addressing the groundwater-related constraints in the diverse landscape of groundwater based economies.